The Barcode Blog

A mostly scientific blog about short DNA sequences for species identification and discovery. I encourage your commentary. -- Mark Stoeckle

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Identifying forensic flies with DNA

800px-Sarcophaga_nodosaIn forensic investigation, insect evidence helps date the time of death, as the various species that colonize corpses exhibit different stages of development according to time and temperature. Determining the post-mortem interval (PMI) rests on accurate species identification, including of immature forms. In Dec 2009 Int J Legal Med researchers from University of Wollongong, Australia, test DNA-based identification of Sarcophagidae flies, which lack distinguishing features as immature forms, and their adult identification requires “meticulous examination of subtle morphological differences, including regional hair presence and colour, body pigmentation and bristle length, placement and abundance”, and even then may need genitalic dissection for confirmation. As a result, sarcophagid flies are little used in forensic study, although being viviparous, they are “prospectively more reliable for PMI estimations compared with other initial dipteran colonisers” [the latter are mostly egg-laying species (e.g. callophorid blowflies), which hatch only if certain environmental conditions are met, adding uncertainty to PMI determinations].

The researchers successfully recovered COI barcodes, without evidence of pseudogenes, from 85 adult specimens representing 16 species, using a single primer pair with degenerate bases previously applied to forensic blowflies (Nelson et al 2007 Med Vet Entomol).  In NJ analysis, 14 of 16 species showed single clusters distinct from other species; the remaining 2 species showed deep divergences which the authors surmise may indicate cryptic species, perhaps more likely given that “taxonomic descriptions of the Australian Sarcophagidae have not been updated since the 1950s”.

Meikeljohn and colleagues demonstrate efficacy of COI barcodes as species-level identifiers for Australian sarcophagids. The tight intra-specific clustering in these flies appears identical to that seen in diverse animal groups including vertebrates, for example, yet flies are presumably several orders of magnitude more abundant. (As an aside, although the authors report their sequences and associated specimen data are deposited in BOLD, their data are not visible in “Public Projects”–I hope the authors will amend this.)  What then limits mitochondrial variation within species? Or in the language of population genetics, why are effective population sizes for animal species uniformly small, unrelated to census population sizes? Like the nature of dark matter, explanation(s) await.

Addendum 11 Feb 2010: Dr. Meikeljohn reports that the sequences and associated data are scheduled to appear in BOLD and NCBI GenBank as soon article appears in print edition.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 12:25 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Identifying forensic flies with DNA”

  1. The Species Tricorder – Two Years Later | aether Says:

    […] Barcoding Life Blog. Recently, reported on a project to use barcoding to determine the species of fly larvae that are important in forensics; although the larvae which feed on corpses can be telling evidence of the time of death, figuring […]


About this site

This web site is an outgrowth of the Taxonomy, DNA, and Barcode of Life meeting held at Banbury Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, September 9-12, 2003. It is designed and managed by Mark Stoeckle, Perrin Meyer, and Jason Yung at the Program for the Human Environment (PHE) at The Rockefeller University.

About the Program for the Human Environment

The involvement of the Program for the Human Environment in DNA barcoding dates to Jesse Ausubel's attendance in February 2002 at a conference in Nova Scotia organized by the Canadian Center for Marine Biodiversity. At the conference, Paul Hebert presented for the first time his concept of large-scale DNA barcoding for species identification. Impressed by the potential for this technology to address difficult challenges in the Census of Marine Life, Jesse agreed with Paul on encouraging a conference to explore the contribution taxonomy and DNA could make to the Census as well as other large-scale terrestrial efforts. In his capacity as a Program Director of the Sloan Foundation, Jesse turned to the Banbury Conference Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, whose leader Jan Witkowski prepared a strong proposal to explore both the scientific reliability of barcoding and the processes that might bring it to broad application. Concurrently, PHE researcher Mark Stoeckle began to work with the Hebert lab on analytic studies of barcoding in birds. Our involvement in barcoding now takes 3 forms: assisting the organizational development of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life and the Barcode of Life Initiative; contributing to the scientific development of the field, especially by studies in birds, and contributing to public understanding of the science and technology of barcoding and its applications through improved visualization techniques and preparation of brochures and other broadly accessible means, including this website. While the Sloan Foundation continues to support CBOL through a grant to the Smithsonian Institution, it does not provide financial support for barcoding research itself or support to the PHE for its research in this field.